For anyone who is curious (though I doubt it): the reason I haven’t put up anything in the last several months is I’ve been suffering from Mitchellesque writer’s block and Shinji Ikari-level clinical depression. Along with that combination, there’s the job I’m actually paid to do and that takes priority over my hobbies. I write largely out of personal interest and, as much as I’d like to be paid for it, I’d rather put out something that feels right to me — even if it takes some time — since I’m doing it for free anyway.
The issue I had, to discuss the Marvel Cinematic Formula, was how to frame the subject. Previous attempts had either been too long or too dry in execution for my own liking. Thankfully, with the release of Black Panther, I’ve been given just what was needed…
It doesn’t surprise me that the film had such an emphatic reaction among audiences, but that isn’t because it’s a Marvel movie. Unlike the increasingly interchangeable, mediocre spectacles that is their oeuvre — a live-action adaptation of T’Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, holds far more cultural significance somewhat similarly to Wonder Woman. I absolutely get all the hyperbolic praise, unlike every other release from Marvel these days, as the cast and setting are an extreme rarity in the world of big budget studio films run and almost entirely populated by white dudes.
However, I didn’t love Black Panther like others have despite my fondness of King T’Challa and his home (it’s the only fictional location I’d want to live in!). Though, to my surprise, it was a far less annoying and disappointing experience — I actually ended up enjoying myself from time to time. I’d go as far to say it’s closer to my favorite (Captain America: Winter Soldier) than my least favorite Marvel movie (a two-way tie between Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron). It’s nonetheless hampered by the Marvel formula which is (aggravatingly) adhered to a slavish degree, despite not needing to anymore, and makes a few perplexing creative decisions as a result. Of course, that would involve going a bit more in-depth…
*THERE BE SPOILERS, FROM HERE ON*
The most distracting element of Black Panther overall, and I’m sure this may sound confusing to some (or many), is that it comes off like the second entry of a trilogy than its initial chapter. Despite taking place chronologically right after the events of Captain America: Civil War — there are aspects of the narrative, especially characterization, done less as an introduction to the material than as a reintroduction.
A portion of the main cast — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Zuri (Forrest Whitaker) — feel as if their character arcs began in a non-existent previous film, with many of the events relating to them in this film acting as pay-off. We’re told that Nakia and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) are former romantic partners, for example, but it’s never adequately explained why they broke up. More importantly, the performances by Nyong’o and Boseman don’t indicate a strained relationship — they’re charmingly adorable around one another — so why not just omit the detail entirely? It could be argued that’s giving the characters these internal lives outside of the events of the film, but that’s hard to believe when the characters — explicitly through conversation — keep bringing up the importance of those past events in relation to a current one. Then there are the motivations of W’Kabi having occurred off-screen but driving him throughout, to the point of betraying T’Challa, as well as how both T’Challa and M’Baku are inferred to be frenemies but never elaborated upon despite being integral to the third act.
Zuri, however, is the most egregious given he’s introduced within this film as a surrogate father figure (was Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s hot mom not enough? I mean, Rene Russo was one of the best things about Thor 2…) but is killed midway through the film and assumes you should somehow care. Much like Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, I wondered why they involved him at all if he wasn’t going to be sufficiently developed as a person and simply killed off to artificially ramp up tension. He’s as underdeveloped and pointless as Whitaker was in Rogue One — the film’s cast is already overstuffed for a first installment and I’d of preferred they held off on using him altogether. He’s definitely not Obi-Won Kenobi from A New Hope and there could’ve been some much-needed breathing room without his presence.
Speaking of artificially ramping up tension: Black Panther is a prime example of how Marvel films make their protagonists far too powerful and seemingly invulnerable — causing so many of the action sequences to become redundant as result. The filmmakers seem aware of this, to some degree, and have to contrive ways in which the character is made vulnerable in order to experience adversity of any kind. The film literally starts out with T’Challa dropping in from the sky and neutralizing a bunch of Boko Haram members, which would’ve been fun or amusing if it wasn’t done so effortlessly on his part. Their bullets just bounce off his suit like small pellets, with no sense of impact whatsoever, and makes one wonder if there’s ever going to be a viable threat for him to face.
Well, he does — in a very forced way.
It’s telling the two best fights involve a ceremonial death match wherein T’Challa — apparently granted superhuman strength and speed from a mystical plant — has to depower himself with a concoction for combat to be on equal footing. Just think about that for a moment; if T’Challa didn’t handicap himself, there is no doubt he’d win without issue and the ceremony would be unnecessary in the first place. I get these are larger-than-life characters who have epic conflicts but, goddamn, you want them to be naturally vulnerable on some level so they can be challenged and persevere. This problem is exacerbated when Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is basically Q to T’Challa’s James Bond as well as his teen sister, gives him a new suit that is more advanced and powerful than his previous one. Along with also being bulletproof, it all fits within a necklace as nanomachines and has a defensive shockwave function after absorbing enough kinetic energy. Like, couldn’t they have those added features and made it less bulletproof, just to entertain the possibility he could be killed if he got too reckless? If it wasn’t for the fact vibranium just so happened to be stored and transported by some pseudoscientific mechanism that made their super-suits malfunction, the final confrontation between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would’ve just been them hitting each other continuously with no progress being made either way. Gee, that would’ve been totally fucking dull!
I’ve been noticing this about the Marvel films for a while now and probably why I lack much of any emotional investment in the characters or events. I mean, why care when you know these people won’t be significantly harmed or even die? Sure, they’ll kill off supporting cast members and the villain-of-the-week to make it seem like shit’s gotten real but never one of the heroes. They treated War Machine being blown out of the sky in Civil War as if it was this momentous occasion…except he didn’t die, simply injured and shown to be recovering just fine. Even after falling hundreds of feet back to earth, in a broken metal shell that likely would’ve further injured than protect him. When characters are put into a truly dangerous situation that requires them to be unconventional in approach, like in Iron Man 3, the ending will likely involve a deus ex machina that renders it moot. Well, that and having it done as a ludicrous battle instead of a more subtle confrontation that isn’t entirely predicated on fisticuffs. It’s impossible to be surprised or excited anymore when you’re given almost no curveballs whatsoever.
The best compliment I can give the film is that, like both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, it is far more self-contained than anything else under the Marvel Studios brand. Outside of referencing the death of T’Chaka (played by father-son team John and Atandwa Kani — which was a brilliant casting choice) from Civil War and a post-credits scene with a Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) cameo, everything that happens in the film is specific to Black Panther as a character and his world. It isn’t like Spider-Man: Homecoming where they bring in Michael fucking Keaton as the antagonist and waste a potentially interesting plotline involving him as a corrupt surrogate father figure, all so Robert Downey Jr. can take up a third of the run time to remind us Iron Man exists (as if we needed that — and we really don’t). One can only hope it continues this trajectory and the sequels won’t end up being one half of another character’s movie or just another ensemble piece like, well, Civil War.
The other best compliment I can give the film is that, unlike both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, the interpersonal banter between characters is more naturalistic. It lacks this eager-to-please, overly quippy approach that just gets grating and feels as if written by a teenager who just learned the concept of “self-aware humor.” Certainly helps that T’Challa and his family, including Killmonger, actually come off as a family due to how they act towards each other. They don’t need to vocally remind us, in a patronizing fashion, that they’re “family” even when all their behavior indicates the exact opposite. There’s an attempt at subtlety that is best exemplified by the criminally underutilized M’Baku (and, by extension, Winston Duke) after his initial macho posturing and begrudging defeat in the first ceremonial duel. Having saved T’Challa when mortally wounded in a similar bout with Killmonger which, along with having yielded to him in combat before (due to a compliment nonetheless), suggests a deeper connection — he’s surprisingly casual, no bluster whatsoever, when speaking to him or other members of his family as if he’s known them personally for years. Despite the antagonism present in his mannerisms, it is difficult to not think he and T’Challa are the best of friends in an odd way. If there was just another scene explaining why he chose to assist T’Challa against Killmonger with the rest of his tribe, rather than being another deus ex machina, would’ve made it the movie’s biggest highlight. It falls short, of course, but remains the most interesting interpersonal dynamic presented in the whole narrative.
Though it’d be remiss to not admit that Erik Killmonger is the closest Marvel Studios has gotten in creating a consistently dimensional villain for any of these movies. He’s still nowhere near as good as Wilson Fisk was in the first season of Daredevil (I’m pretty sure no one else can be, at this point) — but at least he’s given grievances that, unlike Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, are presented as legitimate throughout. Even T’Challa outright admits that the guy has a point and he did kind of win despite dying, given his own cousin’s change of heart. It’s always nice to have some hint of moral grayness in stories that are otherwise far too black-and-white, because it’s verisimilitudinous than cartoonish and reminds you the “hero/villain” dynamic is often an issue of perspective than a law of nature.
It’s just unfortunate that so much of his background, per usual, isn’t shown to us as much as told. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) does an info-dump explaining he was in the military and how it prepared him to take over Wakanda — but I was wondering why, y’know, they didn’t use flashbacks to get the same information across visually. Marvel Studios seems to only use such a helpful storytelling device with chagrin and would rather have characters literally spell things out for the audience, though no one talks that way even when informing someone else in reality. So, what? They’ll have a dream sequence where Killmonger talks to his late father, but not remember his experiences in the military? If they did, it’d of been a great way of reaffirming why he thinks starting a worldwide race war is the best route for social revolution. It’s too bad that, unfortunately taking a note from Luke Cage, the film bends a knee to respectability politics by the end. T’Challa chooses to be more diplomatic in his approach, while never entertaining the idea that revealing Wakanda to the world — especially mostly white, neocolonialist nations — might still end up reacting with hostility and violence.
There’s another problem though: Erik Killmonger shouldn’t have been the first antagonist for a Black Panther movie. As I had stated earlier, this film would’ve worked better as a second installment and stand by that. The main antagonist should’ve been Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) but, more importantly, they should’ve adapted the Reginald Hudlin-written and John Romita, Jr.-illustrated comicbook storyline — “Who is the Black Panther?”
I’m sure it wouldn’t happen, given how much Marvel Studios goes out of its way to not call out racism — which makes so much of its “progressive” cred come off as disingenuous — and the storyline involves a cadre of white supervillains lead by a totally racist Klaue to invade and take over Wakanda. This is all done on behalf of national Western interests, including France and Belgium, known for their colonialist pasts (or neocolonialist present) as well as the Vatican. I shit thee not, that is the actual premise and it’d of been magnificent live-action cinema. But, again, Marvel Studios likes to play it too safe and scared to imagine ever doing anything even slightly challenging — even their depiction of Ulysses Klaue is one that leaves any hint of being a white supremacist to a couple lines and the fact he’s an Afrikaner now (you know why…). Sure, he calls Killmonger a “savage” at one point despite knowing he’s Wakandan — suggesting he believes them to be too primitive to “deserve” their scientific advancements — but it’s completely tangential to what’s essentially a familial conflict. Also, like far too many Marvel villains, he gets killed off after barely being used.
At some point, Marvel Studios will end up in the same situation as Captain Amazing in Mystery Men where — due to all their decent villains being put out of commission — they’ll end up having to grasp at straws and just bring back the Average Joe version of Helmut Zemo or Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader (bet you don’t remember that!).
The welcome improvements certainly make it one of the better movies in the studio’s catalogue but they’re nonetheless marginal improvements — the same ones in Thor: Ragnarok that are attributed all this hyperbolic praise that’s downright misleading when considered further. Oh, Hela brings up Odin’s dark imperialist, bloodlust-driven past and her grievances for being locked away? It’d of been nice — just like with Killmonger — to actually see that as flashbacks than just pay lip-service. It’s always lip-service. There’s a saying that actions speak louder than words and that perfectly explains the ultimate problem with these films; so much of the plot and characterization isn’t driven by the subtleties of behavior and interpersonal interaction, in its many varieties — but almost entirely by what comes out of a character’s mouth. You have to assume what these films are supposedly about not based on the events that occur and the physical actions taken by characters, but because someone stated it outright.
I can’t be the only one who notices all this, right? That the concrete actions taking place in these movies are almost entirely about these characters either having extended exposition-laden dialogue or punching things ‘cause reasons? I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of events happen in his movies and rarely ever involved info-dump monologues or long bouts of pugilism. Drama, throughout its existence, had characters involved in numerous activities where neither verbose exchanges nor feats of combat occurred. Much like watching Game of Thrones or any of the overly-talky HBO dramas — you can’t help but wonder if these audio-visual mediums have regressed in form. It’s turning films and televised/streaming series, both which tend to lack and transcend the limitations of traditional drama, into glorified stage productions. Worst of all, they’re starting to feel like the same glorified stage production.
It’s probably why the Phase 1 releases were my favorite (except for one film) over those that followed, and I’ll explain why next time…
[Originally posted on 5/8/18 @ Medium.com]